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Latinos Building Power, Shaping America's Future

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There's never been a more pivotal moment for Latinos to flex our collective power, and move our community and our country forward. This idea was at the heart of the talk I gave recently at TEDx Washington Heights.

The United States has 50 million Latinos, the third largest and wealthiest Latino community in the world. At a time when a growing chorus of naysayers are predicting America's demise, Latinos continue to be optimistic about our future. Despite our economic difficulties and educational needs, Latinos profoundly believe in America, and it is because of that, that I think that America's best days actually lie ahead.

While many see India and China as the world's most promising emerging markets, they're overlooking Latinos in the U.S., an emerging market that has educational and health advantages. The emerging Latino market is young, hard working and optimistic. This is what we need to turn our country around.

There are a few other reasons that make the Latino community powerful: our biculturalism, bilingualism and connections to Central and South America. There's also the immigrant spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, that if nurtured with an adequate investment in education, can ensure America's position as leader of the world.

The growing influence and power of Latinos is already making a difference at the ballot box. This emerging power has spooked a lot of politicians who have neglected the Latino community or even attacked it by passing immigration laws that make all Latinos even more susceptible to profiling. Their reaction, unfortunately, has been to try to block our votes instead of earning them. It's no accident that Texas and Florida, two of the states with the largest Latino populations passed a slate of restrictive voting laws. Texas now has one of the strictest photo ID laws in the books. Among other restrictions, Florida reduced early voting from two weeks to one and eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day, when Latinos are most likely to vote.

These laws and others that seek to curb organizations like mine from registering voters by setting onerous requirements punishable by fines have made our work more difficult. Fortunately for us, young Latinos lead in the use of mobile technology and have used SMS to mobilize their community. In 2006, mobile messaging helped energize millions of Latinos across the country to demonstrate and protest against draconian anti-immigration laws proposed by Congress. At Voto Latino, we're using the latest mobile technology to help further this engagement by connecting them to the candidates and promoting voting in their communities.

We've already started registering voter for 2012. Our first event was held earlier this month in Texas. We helped register nearly 5,000 high seniors in a pep rally that celebrated democracy. And we're just beginning. We're planning more of these types of events to ensure that 18-year-olds learn that civic participation is a part of taking control of one's future because numbers alone won't give us power and influence. That will only happen if we register, vote and become politically engaged.

I'm excited for the road ahead, and look forward to hearing your voices as part of our national conversation. When you have a minute, watch the video and let me hear from you. Your story will be part of future Voto Latino content that helps grow our movement in 2012.

Maria Teresa Kumar is the executive director and co-founder of Voto Latino.